All good fairy tales need a princess. And though Belle is from provincial stock, she fits the bill to a Disney T. She's kind, sweet, giving, gentle and every bit the beauty that her name would imply.
From her fellow townspeople's point of view, however, there is one little problem: She's just not like them. She reads books. And she dreams of adventure and true love. What a peculiar young thing.
Of course that doesn't stop the lantern-jawed Gaston from wanting her as his wife. She's the prettiest girl in town, after all, which makes her the best. And doesn't he deserve the best?! He's certain he'll cure her of all that silly reading and dreaming once they tie the knot.
Belle isn't interested. She'd rather wait for the future while taking care of her forgetful but loving papa. He's such a dear old fellow, and an inventor, too. Someday his wonderfully quirky inventions will make him famous, she's sure of it.
So when Papa gets lost on his way to the city, and his horse returns without him, Belle is instantly concerned. And she rides out to search for him, his faithful horse taking her to the gates of a gloomy old castle. Inside, she finds her father, locked away in a dungeon cell.
"Go away, Belle!" he cries. "Save yourself." But it's too late. The surly owner of this enchanted castle has heard the commotion and storms into the shadow-cloaked room. With bared teeth and an angry roar, he makes the facts clear: Papa trespassed and a price must be paid. If Belle wants to take his place, so be it. But someone will be the lifelong prisoner of … the Beast!
In the face of such danger, Belle is both brave and self-sacrificial. She is instantly willing to set all her dreams aside to insure her father's wellbeing and freedom. And that is inspiring indeed. Mrs. Potts, the castle's resident talking teapot notices. Lumiere, her best candlestick, notices. And kids of all ages watching this movie will notice too.
We see Beast, who is really a prince (of course), journey from selfishness and prejudice to kindness and humility. Belle is part of that equation, quickly seeing past the monster in him and working hard to cultivate his gentler, princely side. She notes his small admirable virtues, and coaxes him into returning the favor. Beast starts to curb his harsh and, well, beastly ways, attempting to adopt Belle's mannerly and gentle behaviors.
Eventually, Beast realizes just how much he loves Belle. He chooses to set her free, even if it means that he may well remain alone and permanently cursed. And when he's in a position to destroy a deadly enemy, he realizes that he has become a new "man" and spares the bad guy's life.
Belle sings of moving beyond the constraints of a "provincial" life in her small French town. And the movie makes it clear that it's her love of reading and vivid imagination that have shown her the exciting possibilities of a world much bigger than her own. On the other hand, even though Belle has been filled with wanderlust, she balances it with her down-to-earth love for and devotion to her father.
It's made clear that the boorish Gaston's opinions about Belle's reading are exactly that—boorish. "It's not right for a woman to read," he scoffs. "Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking …"
A disguised enchantress turns the handsome (arrogant) young prince into a beast until he can learn to love and be loved in return. We see a rose's petals, linked to her spell, slowly drop away as time runs out for Beast. Her magic also impacts the prince's human servants, turning them into animated furniture and household items.
During the movie's opening musical number, the local butcher eyes a buxom customer (too) approvingly. She asks him, "How's your wife?"—just before said woman crowns him with a rolling pin. Three pretty town girls in formfitting dresses repeatedly coo and swoon over the handsome Gaston. When singing about his robust manliness, Gaston flashes his hairy chest.
Lumiere embraces a French maid feather duster behind a curtain. Later, when the two take human form once more, the shapely maid walks by him with a flirtatious flip of her duster. A townsperson is "swallowed up" by a large animated wardrobe. When the little guy jumps back out, he's dressed in drag, Bugs Bunny-style, with high heels, a large wig and a bikini top.
Comic sidekick Lefou is often on the receiving end of Gaston's "hearty" backslaps, punches and head thumps. He falls, tumbles and crashes throughout the festivities. During one musical number, Gaston gregariously jumps on and wrestles with a group of men—biting one on the ankle.
A fierce pack of wolves chase Papa and Belle in different scenes, lunging and snapping at them with sharp fangs. At one point, it appears that the pack is about to pounce on a cornered Belle when the enraged Beast jumps in to defend her. The wolves then bite and claw him, leaving him scratched and bloodied, prostrate on the snow.
Upon learning of the Beast, Gaston vows to kill him. He incites a mob of angry townspeople to march on the castle with clubs and pitchforks. A fight breaks out between the human attackers and the anthropomorphized furniture: The townspeople are battered and beaten back—burned, jabbed, thumped and smashed.
Gaston shoots Beast with an arrow, tries to kill him with a large club and viciously stabs him in the back. That's right before Gaston falls to his apparent death in a deep chasm. Beast crumples to the ground and appears to die.
Crude or Profane Language
One use of "gosh" and an exclamation of "what the devil?!"
Drug and Alcohol Content
The local pub has bottles of alcohol on its shelves. And a number of patrons drink from flagons of beer. We see Lefou drink some himself and brings Gaston brew too. (Gaston tosses it aside.) In the castle, mugs of beer dance on a dinner table.
Other Negative Elements
While wriggling his way out of a barrel hoop he's stuck in, Papa shows us his polka dot boxers. We see a pub patron's colorful underwear too.
Once upon a time, I knew a young woman who simply hated fairy tales. Why? She worried about the eye-rollingly simplistic notions—such as instant romance and inevitable happily-ever-afters—that a princess story might impose on an unwary child.
She had a point.
I, on the other hand, have always loved the beauty of a fable that can transport us from the mundane to a place of wonder and grandeur. I relish those whimsical concoctions that, when done well, often boil down the essence of good and evil, and sweetly point to the many rewards of a virtuous choice. Those are the kinds of fantasy productions Disney has penchant for. A penchant that produced …
Beauty and the Beast.
This movie is quite simply a masterpiece of fantastical musical fairy tales. But it's also a story that flies in the face of our modern (un)sensibilities. It tells us, for instance, that a person's looks should not be a guiding force in life. Who we are is much more than that. It isn't Belle's beauty that wins the day here. It's all of her "peculiar" traits—her wonder, self-sacrifice, intelligence, kindness and steadfast goodness—that slay the beast within a cursed young prince.
When you add in sparkling animation, a witty script, great voice acting, tear-jerking ballads, painstaking production values and the theatrical sensibilities of an Ashman and Menken score, you end up with a near pitch-perfect film—a well-made story that even that girl I knew so long ago could love.
A 3-D UPDATE: The 2012 theatrical re-release—in 3-D—of this 1991 musical has certainly given the film an updated sparkle. But, truthfully, the added dimension doesn't actually improve it. The 2-D ballroom scene, for instance, was a highlight of the original release—created with special software developed by a then fledgling Pixar—and it doesn't really seem all that different in 3-D. At times, in fact, the 2-D hand-drawn characters can actually look a bit odd with all that artificial depth behind them.
On the other hand, seeing this classic up on the big screen once again is sight for sore eyes, a visual feast worthy of Mrs. Potts herself. And the masterful production numbers—such as the opening operetta-like "Belle" and the bombastic "Be Our Guest"—point out just how much today's musical theater world could use a new wave of gifted writers.